PhD defence: Local knowledge in conservation: Engaging with multiple knowledge forms for improved medicinal plant monitoring

PhD defence

Sabrina Tomasini


The complexities and uncertainties brought about by current global environmental change are unlikely to be tackled by any one knowledge system in isolation. The inclusion of multiple knowledge systems, including scientific knowledge alongside locally-based understandings held by local people, is increasingly attracting attention in conservation circles. Engaging with multiple and local voices is thought to empower local communities and contribute important insights for addressing complex environmental issues. However, attempts at giving voice to local people in natural resource management have often resulted in disrespectful mining of local knowledge to fill knowledge gaps in scientific understandings, thus involving issues of hierarchies of knowledge and power. Scarce evidence exists on how scientific frameworks can build on local knowledge in ways which are meaningful to the local context. The central question that motivates this dissertation is how and to what extent local knowledge interacts with scientific knowledge to enter conservation planning from the local to the (sub-)global scale. Specifically, the thesis investigates: 1) the role of locally-based knowledge and expertise in monitoring for conservation; 2) the dynamics of temporal changes in local knowledge and the factors that affect them; and 3) the ways in which formal monitoring systems can build on existing local monitoring systems based on local knowledge. I present a study of local knowledge on wild growing medicinal plants at different scales. First, at the regional scale in Europe, taking two European IUCN Red Lists as a case; and secondly at the local scale of an ethnic minority inhabiting the mountains of Prespa National Park, in the south-east of Albania. I focus on natural resource monitoring for conservation and sustainable use, on who contributes and with what kind of knowledge, on the dynamics of this knowledge and on issues of power, scale and hierarchies of knowledge emerging from combining multiple forms of knowledge. The study is grounded in the discipline of ethnobiology, but also incorporates insights from political ecology and Science and Technology Studies. To assess the role of local knowledge in conservation at the regional level, data were collected through open and semi-structured interviews and an online questionnaire survey sent out to scientific experts contributing to IUCN Red List assessments. To understand dynamics of local knowledge and local monitoring systems, data were collected during six months of field work, integrating both qualitative and quantitative methods to work with local resource users of medicinal plants. Findings at the regional level suggest that while IUCN Red Lists claim to be a purely scientific product, some local knowledge enters the process, but in a non-structured, non-transparent way, and always hierarchically after validation by scientific experts. At the local level, results show that local knowledge about medicinal plants in Prespa National Park is present and dynamic, opening up to ‘modern’ knowledge through increased access to information after decades of politically imposed isolation under Communism. Based on informants’ perceptions, home consumption of medicinal plants has considerably increased in the past 25 years, despite growing trends of globalisation and market integration which usually cause the opposite. Medicinal plant harvesters informally and individually monitor their resources drawing on a wide range of local knowledge indicators and their assessments of plant population status match with science-based measurements. Local knowledge indicators could potentially be used in official monitoring to ensure that only those aspects are monitored which really matter to the local context. This research contributes to global efforts to work towards sustainable natural resource use and biodiversity conservation by including multiple forms of knowledge and knowledge holders, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It points towards ways to bridge local and scientific knowledge to benefit local and regional wild medicinal plant management. It emphasises the importance of finding transparent and equitable ways for local knowledge to enter decision making in conservation. It suggests opportunities for resource monitoring to be effectively based on a dynamic body of local knowledge and for local knowledge indicators to enter conservation assessments and quality assurance or certification standards.


Senior Researcher, Ida Theilade, Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen

Assesment Committee

Chair: Professor Carsten Smith-Hall, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen
Professor Manuel Pardo-de-Santayana, University of Madrid
Associate Professor Paola Gatto, University of Padova

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